Raising a healthy eater for life: Baby food
Almost everything about having your first baby is new, and just about everyone you ask has advice on how to parent. Much of it is up for debate: cloth or disposable? Breast or bottle? Pacifier or no pacifier? Co-sleep or crib? Homemade or commercially prepared food? While we don’t have a definitive answer to most of those questions, we can provide some advice on what kinds of food (whether it’s homemade or comes from a jar) to introduce first, how to do it, and when.
David Leal, nutritionist and health educator with the Texas A&M Health Science Center Coastal Bend Health Education Center, has counseled numerous expecting and new mothers on proper nutrition. Here are his answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about baby food.
When do I start feeding my baby solid food? From birth until about four months, all babies should be exclusively breastfed or formula fed. Full-term, healthy infants become developmentally ready to begin semisolid foods between four and six months of age. Some signs that your baby is ready to try some solids are: sitting up alone or with support, holding his head steady and straight, and showing interest in food when you eat in front of him. When you offer your baby a spoon of food and he opens his mouth to receive it, keeps the food in his mouth and swallows it rather than pushing it back out, then he is probably ready, but always consult with your child’s pediatrician before beginning a new feeding routine.
What kind of food do I start with? Iron-fortified infant cereal is an appropriate first solid food for infants because it is easy to digest, is least likely to cause an allergic reaction and contains important nutrients such as iron and zinc. It can also be easily altered in texture to meet your child’s developmental needs. Start with just one or two soupy tablespoons, then increase the amount and lumpiness of the texture as your baby’s feeding skills progress.
Single-ingredient pureed fruits and vegetables are also good first options. Just be sure to introduce one single-ingredient food at a time, wait seven days between each new food and watch your baby closely for adverse reactions.
When does my baby get to try meat? Babies are typically ready to begin eating protein-rich foods between six and eight months of age. Meat, poultry, fish (excluding shellfish), egg yolks, cheese, yogurt and beans are a good start. Cook well and strain or puree the meats, and offer cottage cheese, sliced or grated cheese (small slices or strips of cheese are easier and safer to eat than chunks of cheese, which could cause choking). As with all new foods, introduce these one at a time, waiting seven days between each new food while watching your baby closely for reactions to them.
Finger foods look fun! When can we start? Between six and eight months, infants develop what is known as the pincer grasp – the ability to hold things between their thumb and forefinger. At this stage, they can begin feeding themselves with their hands, which is very important to their development of feeding skills.
Finger foods should be small enough for your baby to pick up and soft enough for him to chew on. Cooked macaroni or noodles, small pieces of bread or fruit, ripe peeled fruit or soft cooked vegetables, small slices of mild cheese, crackers and teething biscuits are all appropriate finger foods. Place these in front of your baby, then let the mess begin! (Tip: Use a highchair or booster seat with a removable tray that can be washed easily to help manage the mess.)
Should I give my baby fruit juice? Most babies love fruit juice because it tastes sweet, but it offers no nutritional benefit for infants younger than six months and no benefit over whole fruits for babies older than six months. In fact, excessive amounts of fruit juice have potentially detrimental effects, such as malnutrition, dental cavities, and gastrointestinal symptoms (diarrhea, abdominal pain, and bloating), and can lead infants to consume an inadequate quantity of breast milk, formula and other nutritious foods. Consequently, fruit juice should be fed only in moderation. If you decide to give your baby fruit juice, here are some recommendations to go by:
- Wait to introduce fruit juices until your baby is six months or older.
- Use 100 percent fruit juice.
- Never feed your infant unpasteurized juice.
- As with foods, introduce new fruit juices one at a time, seven days apart while observing your baby for adverse reactions.
- Avoid feeding your baby fruit juices in a bottle or sippy cup.
- Avoid giving your baby fruit juice at nap or bedtime.
What about cow’s milk? It is standard to introduce whole milk after baby’s first birthday. Whole milk is almost always recommended because of the extra fat that it has, which is especially important for neural development. Something important to keep in mind is that even whole milk is not as nutrient dense as infant formula or mother’s breast milk, so it should never be used as a substitute for those. If baby has been introduced to a lot of different foods, from starches to fruits, vegetables and proteins, then complementing his diet with whole milk is appropriate.
How much food does my baby need? That depends on your baby’s age. As foods become appropriate for introduction to your baby, like rice cereal and then vegetables and fruits, you can offer one to two tablespoons of each kind of food. Remember that as more food is introduced to your baby and he’s eating more, he will need less formula or breastmilk, particularly after eight months of age. Some things baby might do if he is satisfied or full: look away or avoid the spoon, arch his back, spit up, and certainly if he is choking or crying, it’s a good idea to take a break or stop the feeding.
Keep in mind that every baby and every day is different, so while your little one might be chowing down happily today, it’s okay if he shows less interest tomorrow. Adjust as needed and listen to your baby. As long as he’s eating a variety of foods and is happy and thriving, you are well on your way to raising a healthy eater for life.